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... From the Goodnews archives, Mar/Apr 2008

 

Ancient Wisdom

 

DominicDominic Meigh, Head Steward at New Dawn and oblate of Quarr Abbey, explores the elevance of the Rule of St Benedict to Charismatic groups and communities.

 

1 - The Primacy of Prayer

‘Nothing shall be preferred to the work of God.’ (Rule of St. Benedict 43:3)

Prayer is time for communion with God, thus it is the most important activity of any community. Without Jesus we can bear no fruit (cf. John15:4), and where praise, worship and love are at the centre of the community, it flourishes; where they wane, it suffers. St. Benedict calls the monk to, ‘lay aside everything he is doing, and hasten with all speed, and yet seriously’ to prayer. Unfortunately, prayer can often be delayed by or squeezed between other activities, such as socialising or setting up. This reveals a lack of discipline. Appropriate planning is needed to ensure that the Lord is worthily praised. The group needs to agree a workable timetable, and stick to it.

2 - Formation

‘Holiness is fitting for your house.’ (Ps 93:5).

We are called to be holy as our Heavenly Father is holy (Matt 5:48), and St. Benedict reminds us that this call is at the centre of the Christian life. For him, the aim of teaching is formation – continuous turning to God, the correction of faults, growth in holiness and intimacy with God, not just for knowledge or interest. This reflects St. Paul, ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete…’ (2Tim 5:16). Such formation can only be accomplished through the power of God, and St. Benedict urges us to, ‘beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it’ (Prologue).

Nothing shows our shortcomings more clearly than living in community, yet too few talks concentrate practically on how to become holy, to which the Rule dedicates several chapters (e.g. Ch 4 Instruments of Good Works, and Ch 7 Humility). In the Rule, the source of instruction was the Scriptures and the Fathers. Today we could add the masters of the spiritual life. But too few talks truly explore the depths of these sources. For St Benedict, ‘Lectio Divina’ - the slow, meditative reading of Scripture - was the source of growth. As St Jerome said, ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’ The saints have shown the way to holiness and left us the fruit of their experience. We ignore them at our cost.

3 - Welcoming

“Guests shall be received as Christ.” (RSB 53:1).

Where there is powerful praise, teaching and ministry, new people will be attracted, and the love of Christ in the warmth of fellowship can be an invaluable support for them in their spiritual journey. St. Benedict reminds us that Christ, on the Last Day, will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ (Matt 25:35), so visitors must be welcomed in the Lord’s name. Yet the group’s great strength of fellowship can also be a weakness. Somehow it is always more important to discuss something with friends than to welcome or invite new people, leaving them feeling excluded. For example, do we always welcome strangers at coffee after Mass? Ignoring strangers is not only bad manners, but an affront to Christ who identifies himself with them. St. Benedict instructs that, ‘great care should be taken with the poor and pilgrims, since in them Christ is especially received’ (RSB 53:15). It was the warm welcome I received at Quarr Abbey and other monasteries that began my journey to becoming an oblate. Yet not all visitors make suitable members, so it must be discerned, ‘whether he is eager for the Work of God, for humility and obedience’ (RSB 58:1). It is also important that newcomers clearly understand the spirituality of the group (Catholic / ecumenical, charismatic / contemplative…). This makes discernment easier, and is fairer on the newcomer.

4 - Leadership

‘[The Abbot] must adapt to circumstances, mingling gentleness with sternness, alternating the strictness of a master with the loving affection shown by a father… he will exhort the patient to virtue and rebuke and correct the negligent and arrogant.’ (RSB 2:23-25)


Though the authority and responsibility of an Abbot is greater than that of a prayer group leader, it is worth benefiting from St. Benedict’s insights. The group leader is more than just an organiser. Making provision for prayer, teaching and ministry, maintaining the unity of the group, and listening to people’s needs, nurturing development and mediating between individuals requires pastoral care. St Benedict reminds the abbot that, ‘he will have to give an account of his stewardship’ (RSB 64:7, cf. Lk 16:2). He needs to listen to the brethren before making significant decisions (RSB 3:2), ‘teach more by deeds than words’ and ‘use argument to exhort and rebuke’ (RB 2:12 & 23, cf. 2Tim 4:2). Such a wise balance in leadership is one of the keys to the longevity and success of the Rule. However, the leader should not take decisions on his own. Leadership is not a democracy – God is not automatically in the majority – but neither is it a dictatorship. It involves discerning the will of God, in the group. The Abbot should, ‘convoke the whole community, and himself declare the proposed action: and having heard the counsel of the brethren, he is to ponder it over within himself and then do what is most appropriate’. Everyone should feel included, and he is told to pay particular attention to children, ‘because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is best’. (RSB 3:1-3)

5 - Murmuring

Nothing undermines a group more than individuals subversively spreading disharmony or grumbling, what St Benedict calls ‘murmuring’. Community depends on all its members co-operating in supporting and building each other up.


At New Dawn it is always edifying to see people cheerfully waiting when delays or problems occur, knowing that people are trying their best in challenging circumstances. But unfortunately there are some who grumble and sow discontent. St Benedict would have none of it. With the good of the community at stake he acts firmly: ‘the evil of murmuring must not appear for any reason’ (RSB 34:6). He knew all too well the effects of murmuring on the community: ‘jealousies, quarrels, detraction, competitiveness, dissensions and disposition from office’ (RSB 65:7). He had no time for murmurers: ‘They are to be subjected to very severe discipline’ (RSB 34:7). Disruptive and demanding individuals can be a strain on leadership time and energy, and some groups may not have the expertise to deal with the problem. Where disunity is being sown, the protection of the community is paramount, even if this means having to ask the individual to stop coming, but with good communication this last resort is rarely necessary. Are we just too polite or frightened to challenge and do we accept complaining and disruption as just an unfortunate fact of life?

6 - Resolution of Problems

No group is perfect. Things go wrong, misunderstandings occur, mistakes are made. Dealing with these problems can make or break the group. Ignoring or mishandling them can lead to frustration, resentment and division. Sadly, many allow their problems to fester rather than, ‘walking in the light’ (cf. 1Jn 1:7). Good channels of communication are therefore vital for the health of the group. Leaders need to act promptly and sensitively when arguments arise. Jesus sets out in Matt 18:15-17 the steps for reconciliation. First the protagonists are to try to sort things out themselves. Failing that, one or two witnesses are called to give support. Finally the matter is referred to the group where expulsion is the ultimate sanction. Resolution and reconciliation can bring healing, growth and maturity. Scripture requires this by sundown (cf. Eph 4:26) and before coming to the altar (Matt 5: 23-24).

7 - Service

‘The brothers are to serve one another’ (RSB 60:3).

It is inspiring, in stewarding, to see so many people cheerfully volunteering service at New Dawn. Unfortunately there does not seem to be an expectation that everyone should serve, so all too often the burden falls on the willing few. For St Benedict this is as unacceptable as it is absurd: ‘no one is excused from kitchen duties unless he is ill’. That’s more like it! Those who will not wash the feet of the brethren are not worthy of them (cf. Jn 13:15). The Lord has given talents to each for the Body; therefore the community will suffer if all do not play their full part. We need a new culture of service where we discern and encourage all to share their talents for the good of the community.


Conclusion

The Church has 2000 years of experience of Christian community living. We need to learn the lessons of the past and discern what is still relevant. Then, ‘with the help of Christ and this little rule for beginners’ (RSB 73:8) and, ‘with our hearts open wide’, we can, with St. Benedict, ‘run with unspeakable sweetness of love on the path of God’s commandments.’ (Prologue).

 

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The Holy Spirit, through the Charismatic Renewal, has called many groups and communities together, like the early Christians after Pentecost, to share praise and teaching, fellowship and encouragement. Places where people can find healing, as well as opportunities to serve and evangelise – beacons of light in a darkened world. Such beacons, however, do not go unnoticed by our ancient enemy, who, ‘prowls like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’ (1Pet 5:8). He knows that, ‘when brothers dwell in unity, there the Lord commands the blessing’ (Ps 134). His tactics are simple. Break the unity. Divide and conquer. All too often, he succeeds and the beacon goes out. So how can these tragedies be avoided?

The Benedictines are the oldest and largest religious community in the West, and the Rule of St. Benedict has survived 1500 years confronting the same problems we encounter today. Its profound understanding of human nature, which has changed little since, makes it no less practical and applicable today. So it is invaluable to contemporary groups, churches and families.